Fresh milk produced using traditional methods is the cream of the crop. The Berchtesgadener Land dairy fills this precious commodity in glass bottles. To meet the soaring demand for milk in returnable bottles, the cooperative has replaced its returnable-glass line, which fills organic and mountain farmers’ milk and cream.
‘The cows are our key staff,’ say the folks at the Berchtesgadener Land dairy. And you immediately notice that they mean it. A life-size plush cow stands in the reception lobby of the modern, welcoming administration building, and in the seating area you feel a bit as if you were sitting on a mountain pasture. Large photos on screens in the canteen showcase cows in artful settings, and in the meeting room cow bells are used as lamp shades.
Everything here revolves around the cows, or to be more precise their milk, which is supplied by the approximately 1,800 farmers who own the cooperative. When you talk to the people working for the dairy, you cannot help but notice the deep sense of attachment they feel to “their” farmers and the top-quality milk they supply.
The cooperative’s paramount business target is clearly perceptible: to preserve the existence of their farms, by fetching the best-possible milk price with high-grade products and smart marketing. The key priority is to preserve the smallholdings in the mountainous area between Watzmann and Zugspitze, in particular, where the average farm has 27 cows.
They’d do almost anything here for their mountain farmers, even if that means driving a milk collection truck along winding mountain tracks to pastures located at elevations above 1,000 metres. They do that every other day in the summer season when the cows are up there.
Soaring demand for milk in returnable bottles
The Berchtesgadener Land dairy cooperative was founded in 1927, almost 100 years ago. Today, it has a payroll of 500 and processes 1.1 million litres of milk per day, turning them into more than 150 different products, ranging from a number of yoghurt and fromage-frais variants and cream right through to UHT, ESL and fresh milk.
The dairy makes all those articles in-house at its Piding facility, most of them in conventional and organic quality. The cooperative was the first dairy in Germany to launch organic products in 1973, at that time working with five Demeter farms. The number of the cooperative’s organic farms has since grown to around 600, of which 100 belong to Demeter, Germany’s oldest organic farming association, and 500 to Naturland – Registered Association for Organic Agriculture.
“Traditional fresh milk is the most difficult product to make in our field,” says Paul Althammer, deputy production manager at the dairy. “We want to preserve everything we can in the milk and treat it to maximised standards of gentleness. This premium-quality product must be filled in premium-quality packaging, the glass bottle.”
The dairy has filled its fresh milk into returnable glass containers since 1990. Soaring demand for milk in returnables caused some bottlenecks in the previous line, which was rated at 6,000 containers per hour. The situation even got so critical that the dairy had to temporarily cease production of the bottled conventional cream.
In 2019, the cooperative decided to change its plans and to use a building that had originally been erected to accommodate filling lines for beverages cartons for a new returnable-glass line. This enabled the dairy to promise its customers that the popular bottled cream would return. The half-litre bottles with the green label then reappeared in the refrigerated display cases just in time for the 2022 strawberry season.
Altogether, the Berchtesgadener Land dairy has invested a sum in the two-digit millions into new buildings and the new line. For the cooperative’s farmers, that means having to do without the maximum possible milk money today, in favour of safeguarding their future. The expectations for the lines and systems are correspondingly high, as is the responsibility shouldered by project manager Paul Althammer.
The right stuff: traditional fresh milk in returnable bottles
The most important requirement for the new line was quality, both in regard to the machines and systems and the products made on them. “Production lines for traditional fresh milk must always give reliable service. We don’t have time for long maintenance routines,” emphasises Althammer.
The milk is delivered to the dairy every day and must be dispatched fast, in order to guarantee retailers a minimum shelf life in the cold chain of eight days. What’s more, complying with stringent cleanliness standards in production is the top priority for filling this unsterilised milk. Germs carried in from outside result in faster milk spoilage, meaning the required shelf life would then not be met.
When filling into returnable bottles, moreover, contaminated empties must not be allowed to enter the filling zone. That entails stringent requirements for the bottle washer, the filler and overall hygiene standards for the line.